Democracy’s Missing Meaning

by Richard K. Sherwin

Richard K. Sherwin, Professor of Law and Director of the Visual Persuasion Project at New York Law School, is the author of Visualizing Law in the Age of the Digital Baroque: Arabesques & Entanglements and When Law Goes Pop: The Vanishing Line between Law and Popular Culture.

"In short, it is a matter of meaningfulness, the presence of which motivates us, connects us to one another, and orders our lives. If it is missing – if, say, democratic ideals and institutions are failing to provide a palpable enough sense of community and purpose – people seek a sense of meaning elsewhere, which in some cases leads them to malevolent causes."


NEW YORK – The decision to abandon relative peace and prosperity for brutal war and instability may seem irrational. But young people, born and raised in democratic societies, have increasingly been yielding to the appeal of death-dealing groups like the Islamic State, leaving their homes and families to wage jihad in faraway places. Why has democracy lost the allegiance of these restless spirits, and how can it recapture the hearts and minds of others who would follow suit?

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that humans would rather will nothingness than not will anything at all. The leaden despair of lifelessness, impotence, and hopelessness is vastly less appealing than intensity – even if that intensity is found in violence, death, and destruction.

In short, it is a matter of meaningfulness, the presence of which motivates us, connects us to one another, and orders our lives. If it is missing – if, say, democratic ideals and institutions are failing to provide a palpable enough sense of community and purpose – people seek a sense of meaning elsewhere, which in some cases leads them to malevolent causes.

This is the cultural challenge facing democracy today, and those who wish to maintain the freedom and promise of democratic societies ignore it at their peril. It is a challenge that should be recognized not only for what it says about living conditions in advanced democratic countries worldwide, but also because any crisis is also an opportunity – in this case, to recapture the meaning that lies at the heart of democracy.

The appeal of groups like the Islamic State to young people reared in democratic countries highlights these societies’ growing disparities in educational and economic opportunity, which are breeding cynicism, resignation, and anger among those who find themselves locked out of the social elite. Feelings of hopelessness and despair at the center incite extremism at the fringes.

Elites in the advanced democracies – say, the top 1% of income earners – can hardly take comfort from such conditions. Even the most insular globetrotter, flitting from one market or cultural playground to another, must consider their children. What culture will they absorb? From where will they derive their sense of hope for the future?

Defenders of democracy must now determine not only how to create jobs and ensure material prosperity for today’s young people, but also how to feed their souls on the way. If they fail, as we have seen, others will fill the void, potentially with a call for mayhem in the name of messianic futurity.

To win this high-stakes contest, democratic societies must look beyond battlefield victory and focus on winning hearts and minds through the power of ideas and the promise of meaningfulness – just as the Islamic State has done. The notion that democracies can fend off such forces, with their well-resourced and media-savvy ideological apparatuses, with guns alone is a sure loser. This is a battle of meanings, and it can be won only with ideas that inspire hope, action, and coherence of self and community.

The effort should begin with a publicly commissioned gathering of a broad cross-section of political scientists, anthropologists, theologians, philosophers, and artists, among others, from across the political spectrum, convened from universities and similar institutions around the world. Over a predetermined period, they would produce a clear, plainly written report to the public.

The report should address, tenaciously and honestly, key questions about democracy’s vitality today. What lies at the wellsprings of democratic life? How is it best expressed, performed, instituted, and safeguarded? What is democracy’s best message of hope, and its most credible promise of future flourishing? What are the deep cultural, intellectual, and spiritual sources for freedom, tolerance, and productivity?

We live in a dangerous time. With democratic ideals under threat around the world, including within democratic countries, their shared cultural and ideological foundations cannot be taken for granted. The meaning and vitality of life in a democracy cannot be allowed to fade.

The challenge ahead demands a concerted response from our deepest thinkers and most creative artists. This is our purpose today; we must commit ourselves to it as passionately as democracy’s enemies pursue theirs.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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